We tasted two beers from our end of 2014 wish list last night: BrewDog’s collaboration with Weihenstephan, India Pale Weizen, and a recreation of the fabled Ballantine IPA.
Well, sort of. The latter was not the recent effort released by Pabst, which we’re still desperate to try, but an entirely different beer produced as a collaboration between two US breweries, Stone and Smuttynose. Will it soon be possible to have a bar selling nothing but Ballantine clones? Possibly.
If there’s a theme to this post, it’s old meets new, and the idea of sliding scales. You’ll see what we mean.
India Pale Weizen
6.2%, 330ml, from Red Elephant, Truro; £2.60 at BrewDog’s own online store
With apologies to the ‘all that matters is the taste’ crowd, what got us interested in this beer was the idea of the Scottish upstarts BrewDog collaborating with the centuries-old German brewery Weihenstephan. Our assumption was that they would meet halfway and create the perfect beer for a pair of fence-sitters like us.
Now, there’s no simple answer, and, even if the British beer fraternity did share a single opinion, we wouldn’t be qualified to state it. Nonetheless, here’s our attempt to summarise the various camps.
1. People stuck in the nineteen-seventies don’t know it exists
Back then, there really wasn’t much ‘characterful’ American beer — check out Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer for a valiant attempt to find some. As far as British beer enthusiasts were concerned, American beer was all ‘cold fizzy flavourless piss’. Some people, though they profess to be ‘into their beer’, still believe this is the case, if our experience of conversations at beer festivals is anything to go by.
2. Some people seem to dislike America, let alone American beer
They deny any American influence on British brewing in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary; they fail to see what American beer has to offer that can’t be found better elsewhere; and find the people in 5, below, extremely irritating.
3. Some simply prefer British beer (or beer from elsewhere)
There’s no malice in it — they just like what’s local and fresh. The beer from here is pretty decent and increasingly varied and interesting — why look abroad? Many ‘real ale’ enthusiasts are probably in this camp. British drinkers and brewers who had their ‘eyes opened’ by American beer before, say, 2007, when there were few examples of, e.g. strong, intensely aromatic British IPAs, have moved into this camp in recent years. (Brewers are sometimes motivated by a protectionist impulse: ‘Buy British!’)
4. Some feel very warm towards American craft beer
They’re interested in what’s going on in the US; will drink an interesting US beer in preference to a boring British one; generally like British beers in the US style.
5. Some think American craft beer and the attendant culture are where it’s at, and everything else is basically rubbish
The chaps at Brewdog have expressed this view, and are fairly open in their worship of Stone Brewing. We’ve spoken to other British brewers who were absolutely clear that their favourite beers and greatest inspirations are American. Many brew beers which seem to us to be obvious attempts to clone specific US brews. Some enthusiasts speak with almost religious fervour of beer enjoyed on trips to the US.
This is traditionally where people comment “I’m a 4!” and so on. Feel free to do so, or to suggest categories you think we’ve missed.
‘I’m such a huge obsessive enthusiast for American wheat beers,’ said no-one, ever.
After our recent experience with a Japanese wheat beer that brought nothing to the table, we had low expectations for these two specimens from Widmer Brothers and Fordham. We were pleasantly surprised by both, at least in terms of their difference from other wheat beers on the UK market.
The Original American Weizen
Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen (4.9% ABV, £2.19 330ml from Noble Green Wines) has been around long enough to have earned an ‘oral history’, being firstbrewed in 1984. Its claim to fame is that it invented a new ‘style’, ‘American Wheat’: despite its otherwise German-inspired recipe, it is not fermented with the famous yeast strain that makes Bavarian wheat beer smell like bananas.
Or, to put it another way, it is German wheat beer without the very thing that makes it so distinctive. Curry without all those stupid spices.Opera without all the singing.
We expected something like Erdinger Alkoholfrei, especially given its journey across the Atlantic, and it had the same dirty, dusty look about it. But — phew! — it was actually bright and fruity — a wholesome multi-grain health food of a beer. (The Portman Group can’t tell off bloggers, can they?) In lieu of bananas, we were reminded of pineapple cubes. There was a spot of spiciness, too, that brought to mind Chimay Gold.
One complaint: we’d have liked a bigger bottle, as this is a beer to be drunk by the pint without too much pondering or pontificating.
It needed more carbonation and sparkle — not something that can be said of most German wheat beers — and its semi-flatness made it look unappealing in the glass, and taste somewhat sickly.
As well as the expected banana, we also thought we detected orange oil, and a spot of rose-water. It had a dry chalkiness, presumably from the suspended yeast that made it cloudy, which helped to counteract some of the toffeeish malt and fruitiness.
That malt might be this beer’s other problem: it is dark orange in colour, exactly like wheat beers we’ve bodged together at home using English pale ale malt rather than the prescribed super-pale pilsner malt. We would probably prefer it if it had been made with a paler base malt, and with more wheat in the mix.
After all those complaints, on the whole, we liked it, and would drink it again.
North American craft brewers more closely adhere to early IPA specifications than do British brewers who, as a group, do not.
How did that belief arise? What was going on in the world of beer to convince everyone (including us) that, if a beer wasn’t strong and aromatic, it wasn’t a ‘real’ IPA? Here are four possible contributions to the development of that myth.
1. The Durden Park Beer Circle published, Old British Beers and How to Make Them, an influential collection of historic recipes, in 1976. We haven’t got our hands on an original edition but our 2003 reprint contains this on Hodgson’s India Pale Ale
…had an OG over 70, a hop rate of 2.5 oz per gallon… [and was] carefully primed and dry hopped before despatch to India. Fully matured by the tropical heat, India ale had a hop nose, full flavour and the luscious taste that only comes with an initially over-hopped ale that has fully matured.
2. Anchor Liberty, first brewed in 1975 using tons of the then new Cascade hop, was ‘inspired’ by the British practice of dry hopping, and its strength was similar to that of early nineteenth-century British IPAs. The brewery was old; their Steam Beer was a survivor of an earlier age; the beer had a faux-vintage label; and was brewed to commemorate American independence. All of that, perhaps, added up to a sense of historical authenticity it didn’t exactly deserve.
3. Though he barely mentioned IPA in his 1977 World Guide to Beer, Michael ‘Beer Hunter’ Jackson’s 1982 Pocket Guide (the one most people we’ve spoken to actually owned, because it was smaller and cheaper) describes the intensely bitter, hop-aromatic Ballantine’s IPA as a survivor of an earlier age of American brewing, descended from nineteenth-century British beers. It’s easy to see how this might have developed into the myth of the ‘more authentic American IPA’.
4. In 1993, at the request of Mark Dorber of the White Horse in West London, Bass brewed an IPA to a historic recipe. It was c.6.5% ABV with 84 units of bitterness, according to a contemporary Guardian article by Roger Protz (4/9/1993): ‘it’s like putting your head inside a sack of hops fresh from Kent. The aroma is pungent, spicy, peppery and resiny, and the hops dominate the palate and the finish as well.’
5. The excitement around the recreated Bass IPA, and the White Horse festival it was brewed for, triggered a brief historical IPA mania. Robin Young of The Times described IPAs brewed to nineteenth-century recipes as ‘the special fad’ of the 1994 Great British Beer Festival; and the 1995 Good Beer Guide reports on the preceding year’s ‘IPA fever’. The emphasis in most reports was on the authenticity and hop ‘oomph’ of these brews compared to supposedly ‘Bowdlerized’ modern IPAs.
Anyone else have any suggestions? Is there a c.1980 US home brewing text, perhaps, that makes the claim?
UPDATE: we have an answer, we think. Roger Protz’s 2001 book India Pale Ale (written with Clive Le Pensée) includes a detailed account of how IPA was ‘revived’ in the nineties, beginning with a seminar at the White Horse in 1990, followed up in 1994. There is much talk of Bowdlerizing and ‘true IPA’, and reports of a trans-Atlantic agreement on the bare minimum spec for an IPA: 5.5% ABV, 40 units of bitterness.
Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007